USA — Zane Thomas is one of Highlands County officials glad to hear that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded the county a $136,000 “Firewise” grant to greatly reduce the chances of wildfires engulfing homes.
Nobody has to impress upon Thomas the threat to life and property that wildfires pose.
His wife and two children narrowly escaped death four years ago in a wildfire that burned their home to the ground and killed 16 people in their rural neighborhood on the outskirts of San Diego.
“Twelve of the people who died were neighbors on our street,” said Thomas, a planner in the Highlands County Planning Department.
“My daughter had to jump out of a second-floor window (to escape the fire),” he said. “The fire struck at 3 o’clock in the morning, and if it wasn’t for a neighbor who pounded on the door, probably nobody would have gotten out of that house.”
Launched in 2002, Firewise Communities USA is a nationwide program to prevent or greatly reduce the threat of wildfires on homes. More than 211 cities in 33 states, running across the continent from New York to Texas to Alaska, have certified Firewise programs.
Residents in those communities, besides being safer, also enjoy reduced home insurance costs after they are certified as a Firewise community by the state department of forestry, Thomas said.
“Personally,” Thomas said, “I believe the threat of loss of life due to fire is greater than the threat due to hurricanes here in Highlands County.”
A color map of Highlands and surrounding counties, from the Florida Division of Forestry, shows the areas most prone to wildfire in pink, contrasted against yellow, where the threat of wildfires is much less.
“Look where that fire threat is greatest in our county,” Thomas said. “It goes right down the ridge, right along both sides of U.S 27.” The bright pink fire-threat zone, in fact, engulfs all three municipalities and almost all of the dozens of subdivisions in the unincorporated areas of the county, all either on or adjacent to the Lake Wales Ridge.
The ridge, where most people live in this county, has a natural habitat “that is meant to burn periodically, and that’s good for the ridge, biologically,” Thomas said.
The problem, of course, is that the natural cycles of burning threaten the people who came to live on the ridge, and continue to build out into it. “A big part of it (Firewise) is going to be fuel reduction projects,” he said.
Through Firewise, individual homeowners will be taught how to take away the threat of wildfire reaching their house. Collectively, Thomas said, all homeowners in a neighborhood or subdivision will be taught how to get rid of the threat of fire to their entire community.
“The longer the fuel load sits there and doesn’t burn, the great the danger,” he said. “And the further we encroach into the wild lands, the greater the danger.”
Controlled burns will be a large part of getting rid of the natural fuel that can spark into an out-of-control wildfire that rolls from wild lands into residential areas, he said.
“We know it’s a great program,” said Tim Eures, the emergency operations director for Highlands County. One of his duties is coordinating the three paid and 10 volunteer fire departments in the county.
“From an educational standpoint,” Eures added, “it is excellent in letting all the residents understand how to create some defensible space around their house to give them protection in case there is a wild fire.”
Subdivisions where urban neighborhoods just out into or are surrounded by wild, undeveloped lands, and houses in the middle of the rural lands, are the most susceptible to wildfires, Eures said.
“We’re a county of 1,100 square miles, and the majority of it is rural, and so we have a lot of areas where you have the ‘urban interface’ concern,” he said.
The FEMA grant will go to the Highlands County commissioners, who have to formally accept it. Eures and Thomas noted that there is no local match, so the fire prevention program is completely funded by federal money.
Highlands County first applied for the Firewise grant in 2006 but was not funded that year or in 2007. Eures said he was pleasantly surprised recently when a representative of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called him and reported that Highlands County had been awarded the wildfire mitigation grant.
The grant will cover the salary of an administrator for the county’s Firewise program, yet to be appointed. Thomas said the grant will cover a 10-step work schedule.
Initial steps include appointing a wildfire mitigation committee, and putting up a Web site for wildfire mitigation programs and projects in Highlands County.
Next comes what the grant calls an “educational risk assessment pilot program.”
In layman’s terms, Thomas said, one of the neighborhoods judged most vulnerable to wildfire will be picked. Residents there will be taught how to identify fire risks and then how to get rid of those risks.
“The end goal is to develop a community wildfire protection plan for the community,” Thomas said. The program would then go from neighborhood to neighborhood.
“The goal is for the whole county to be covered,” Thomas said. “Obviously, you have to start and work neighborhood by neighborhood.”
Thomas, who has since retired after a 25 year career as a U.S. Naval officer, was aboard a ship on deployment when the 80-mph Santa Anna winds whipped the San Diego wildfire.
When word of the fire reached his ship, he was sent home to be with his family.
“I can remember flying back in to San Diego and we saw where the wildfires had been,” he said. “It looked like a war zone, burned to the ground, there was nothing left.”
He learned that a husband and wife who lived across the street from his home became trapped by the fires raging up and down their street. Unable to get out of their driveway to a road, Thomas said, they survived by riding in their pickup truck through back fields which the fire had just swept through.
Eventually, driving over just-burned-out areas, their tires melted and they couldn’t move.
“They were moments away from death, and talking by (cell) phone with their daughter, who couldn’t get in to the area” he recalled.
Thomas looked at the fire-threat map of Highlands County, noting again that the major threat is where most of the people live.
“If you look at that (fire threat area), and think of all the people we have in that area,” he said, “there is a serious threat to human life, and it definitely is worth our effort to mitigate that threat.”